An improvisation with Balinese Gamelan, Semara Ratih (December, 2004)

Dear Friends, we have found another amazing archival video in the YouTube. It is amazing that this performance took place 10 years before the 2015 event in Kashipur/Odisha, the video of which I had posted recently.  Some of you may already know the relationship between Bali and Odisha that had existed for millennia. Some may even have noticed from the previous video that my ‘improvised’ movements were inspired by ‘Balinese’ dance movement. The main reason for this was, not only because I had been intimately associated with Bali and had been aware of Bali’s cultural connection with Odisha, which had first spurred my interest in odissi.  Also, it was because my friend, the late Dr Dinanath Pathy, who organised the Kashipur trip was present for the event.  Dinanath Pathy happened to be the Visualiser of the Kalinga-Bali Jatra, a spectacular cultural-trade expedition undertaken and supervised during the government of the populist former Chief Minister of Odisha, Biju Pattnaik in 1993.  The cultural expedition served to remind the public of, and simulated, this Odisha/Kalinga-Bali connection. The Bali Jatra festival is annually celebrated in Cuttack/Odisha and has been in its cultural calendar for centuries. It is a traditional homage to the hoary times when traders of Odisha were given a send-off when, with the coming of the monsoon they embarked on their long journey to Bali/Java.

This improvised dance was accompanied by the Gamelan Semara Ratih of Ubud, Bali. The gamelan was initially sponsored in the mid 80s by my good friend, Asri Ghafar.  Directed by the superb Baris dancer, Anak Agung Anum, Semara Ratih eventually became one of Bali’s outstanding gamelans. However, we won’t go into this as this is yet another interesting story which deserves to be told on another occasion.

The video you are viewing represents a synchronically momentous event as it was performed on the 26 December, 2004 (Boxing Day), literally spot-on during the Great Tsunami which wrecked havoc in this part of the world.  I distinctly remembered going back after the performance with Asri Ghafar and Rose Ganendra, when the former expressed his anxiety that a major natural disaster had occurred in Phuket and he feared that some friends (Tunku Sakinah of Kedah and Abdullah Abu Samah, the later is now one of Sutra’s Trustees), may be caught in this massive disaster. 

Now, back to the performance, in the video you will see me in the Pura Dalem of Ubud (Temple of the Dead) during a festival held in homage of the old performing artists (seniman-seniman Werdha) of Bali. The festival featured all the divas and divos/living national treasures of Balinese dances – from Baris to Kebyar, from Topeng to Oleg, and even veteran composers who were contemporaneous with ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee, who had lived in Bali during the 30’s. 

I remember prior to my performance, was the amazing dance of Ibu Jimat, one of the great dramatic dancers Bali who at that time was already in her 80’s.  (Jimat, her son, is Bali’s iconic Gambuh topeng dancers). I stood transfixed as ‘Bu Jimat danced the part of the witch Rangda, who plotted to steal a baby from a cradle, for her vile witchy purpose. There was also Ibu Rai who was the progenitor of the Oleg Tumulilingan (Dance of the Bumble Bee) who, in the 50’s, had travelled as child dancer with famous dancer Sampih for the US and Europe Tour.  Actually, we had previously met all these dancers 8 years before when in 1996, Asri Ghafar organised a historic festival celebrating these ‘toko-toko’ seniman Werdha.

As I was one of the ‘founders’ of the Gamelan, I was eventually coerced to participate.  I was always disinclined to perform in Bali as I did not feel that I would do justice to the dance, if I were to perform it to recorded music.  Unfortunately, I had little choice, and reluctantly agreed to perform on condition I perform an improvisation to the live Gamelan.

The Balinese musicians were perplexed as they would not know what I will be doing….

By the way, the name ‘Semara Ratih’ itself refers to Smara (god of love or eros, also known in Hindu myth as Kama/Smara/Ananga; from smara, the malay word ‘asmara’ is derived) and Ratih/Rathi, his consort is, aptly, ‘Desire’ personified. Both Smara and Ratih create mayhem, especially during spring, with Smara shooting his flowery arrows of love to the netizens of Earth, making them do strange things.  This may be why we are still obsessed by this four-letter word.

I decided to base my improvisation on three episodes in the myth of the God Siva. One of the anecdotes briefly featured this particular occurrence of Smara/Ratih in the context of the romance of Siva and Parvati.  After Sati (Siva’s former consort) immolated herself, Siva was bereft and went into withdrawal.  The world in turn followed suit and became life-less.  Siva withdrew into meditation. Parvati was incarnated to once again stir Siva’s interest in Life/beauty/procreation etc. But, alas, Siva didn’t even deign to notice the presence of Parvati, no matter what she did to distract him.  By the way, Parvati was an incarnation of The Goddess/Shakti, to seduce Siva so that he might once again energise the world.  Enter Smara/Kama/Eros who was supposed to shoot his arrow of love at the opportune time to help catalyse this romance. Unfortunately for Kama, Siva sensed this – his third eye burst opened and reduced Kama to ashes! (This is why Kama/Smara is also known as Ananga or The Bodiless One)

But Kama’s deed was done and he achieved his objective! His love-arrows pierced Siva to the core and he was smitten by Parvati when he saw her. The rest, as they say, is history….  Ratih/Desire incarnate of course, was inconsolable.  

Out of this brief episode we kind of have a glimpse of the background as to why the small and more evocative Balinese gamelan genre is called ‘Semara Pegulingan’ (The Fallen Semara, or in Hindu myth refers to Smara Dahana, or, the Burning of God of Love).  The Semara Pegulingan has remained my favourite gamelan genre as compositions played by this gamelan are more evocative and melancholic if compared to the more bigger and ‘flashy’ Gong Kebyar Gamelan, featured in this video ….


Original Video link available: